How The New York Times Fumbled Its Case Against The Yale QuarterbackS

Last week, The New York Times told a new story about how Yale quarterback Patrick Witt's candidacy for a Rhodes Scholarship ended. While the public was following the drama of Witt declining his Rhodes interview to play in the Harvard-Yale game, the Times reported, the Rhodes Trust and Yale had suspended his candidacy because of an accusation of sexual assault.

The Times public editor has gotten volumes of angry mail about the story, according to the public editor's assistant. Much of it has been inspired by the anonymous sourcing around the sexual assault case—a case in which the Times wrote that "many aspects of the situation remain unknown, including some details of the allegation against Witt," and that

Witt's accuser has not gone to the police, nor filed what Yale considers a formal complaint. The New York Times has not spoken with her and does not know her name.

But the Times story wasn't fundamentally about sexual assault. It was supposed to be about deception, how the quarterback and the university had misled everyone, turning an embarrassing episode into a fake, inspiring media sensation:

In early November, according to those with knowledge of the matter, someone told the Rhodes Trust about the sexual assault accusation. The notification was not anonymous; it was not, though, made formally by a Yale official. Rhodes notified Levin, the Yale president, and other university administrators and gave them about a week to decide whether they still wanted to back Witt.

Yet on Nov. 12, The Wall Street Journal quoted Witt saying, "I just need to make a decision and live with it." In the same article, Yale's athletic director, Tom Beckett, described his star quarterback as "a deep thinker."

That "yet," when juxtaposed with "early November," implies that Witt and Yale deceived the media. But they may not have. The Yale Daily News this week put more dates on the sequence of events. What it adds up to is that Witt, Yale, the Rhodes Trust, and the press were out of sync on fast-moving developments.

According to the Yale Daily News account, for instance, Witt had already told the athletic department he would decline his Rhodes interview before he was notified that his application was in trouble:

Witt said he first learned his candidacy had been called into question when he received a phone call from Yale Director for National Fellowships Katherine Dailinger on either the evening of Nov. 9 or morning of Nov. 10. In the call, Witt said Dailinger informed him that he would need re-endorsement from Yale to remain eligible for the scholarship.

By that time, however, Witt said he had already chosen to play in The Game rather than pursue the Rhodes. He told Dailinger that, as a result, he would not need University re-endorsement.

Here's the fullest available timeline, based on the latest reporting:

Oct. 31: Witt finds out that he is a finalist for the Rhodes scholarship and that his interview is scheduled for November 19, the day of Harvard-Yale. He is also, separately, informed of the complaint lodged against him by a fellow student.

Nov. 1: Witt tells the New Haven Register that he hopes to reschedule his Rhodes interview, but that he will play in The Game if he cannot. Witt also meets with Yale administrators to discuss the complaint.

Nov. 7: NBC Nightly News airs a segment on Witt's choice.

Nov. 8: The Hartford Courant covers Witt's choice, as do Gawker and other outlets. That afternoon, Yale holds its weekly press conference, where Witt talks to assembled media, including Scott Cacciola of the Wall Street Journal. Witt's interview with Bloomberg News appears online. During the day, Witt is emailing with a Rhodes administrator, seeking either to move his mandatory interview from game day to the morning after, or to interview the morning of the game and be exempted from a possible afternoon follow-up interview. The Rhodes administrator denies Witt's request.

Nov. 9: According to Witt's spokesman and agent, Mark Magazu, Witt informs Yale Athletics that he will forgo his chance at a Rhodes and play in Harvard-Yale. Late this evening or the next morning, by Magazu's account, Witt first hears that the Rhodes Trust has heard about the complaint against him and has asked Yale for a re-endorsement of his candidacy.

Nov. 10: Witt informs Yale's administrator in charge of the Rhodes that he will not pursue the scholarship because of the scheduling conflict, rendering the re-endorsement issue moot.

Nov. 11: Another story cited by the Times, "Yale QB Has to Make a Smart Decision," runs in the Hartford Courant, but Witt does not give an interview for it.

Nov. 12: Yale defeats Princeton, 33-24. The Wall Street Journal runs Scott Cacciola's story, "A Quarterback's Quandary," in its Saturday edition.

Nov. 13: Witt informs the Rhodes that he is withdrawing his candidacy, and issues a press release through Yale Athletics: "I will be playing in the Yale-Harvard game this Saturday. I have withdrawn my application for the Rhodes scholarship. My focus this week is solely on preparing for The Game alongside my teammates and coaches." Witt told the Yale Daily News that he would decline all interview requests during the week.

Nov. 19: Harvard defeats Yale, 45-7, in Witt's last game.

So the bulk of the coverage of Witt's decision—including any face-to-face interviews that went into the Saturday Journal story—was apparently reported while the quarterback was still negotiating with the Rhodes Trust. And Witt had already stated publicly that he would choose the football game over the interview, if the schedule couldn't be adjusted.

The premise of the Times story is that Witt had known the assault allegation was sinking his candidacy, but he and Yale sold the press on a much more inspiring version of events. Everyone believed he had chosen his teammates over the Rhodes. Which seems to be what actually happened.